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Haruki Murakami: ねじまき鳥クロニクル (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)

It was Kenzaburo Oe who won the Nobel Prize but it is this novel that is the best post-war Japanese novel, at least of those that have been translated into a Western language. It is a story of good versus evil (though cleverly disguised) but also a story of Japanese involvement in Asia before and during World War II, a story of things not being what they seem to be and, in particular, a story of what lies just beneath the surface, which is always there but most of us cannot or choose not to see.

Our hero – Toru Okada – was a paralegal but quit his job because he was bored with it. He has yet to find another job but does not seem too keen to do so. He is supported by his wife Kumiko, who works for a small publisher. They live in a nice house in Tokyo, lent to them by Toru’s uncle, who seems to have a variety of somewhat dubious interests. Toru stays at home and does the housework and half-heartedly looks for a job. Things start to happen when the cat disappear. The cat, whom they call Noburo Wataya – the name of Kumiko’s brother – has not been home for a week and Kumiko asks him to look for it. Behind their house is an alley which is now blocked off (to humans) at both ends. At one end of the alley is an empty house, which seems to have brought bad luck to its owners, all of whom seem to have had violent deaths. While waiting for the cat, sure that it will pass through the alley at some time, he meets May Kasahara, a sixteen year old girl who is off school as a result of motorcycle accident. She will remain more or less as his contact with reality throughout the book.

The cat does not return (or, rather, only returns a year later) but Kumiko urges him to speak to Malta Kano who seems to have a gift of solving problems of missing animals and people. Before long, he is involved in a strange relationship with Malta and her sister, Creta, who both have strange gifts. (Yes, they are both named after the respective Mediterranean islands.) In particular, it seems that Creta was, when younger, raped by Noburo Wataya (the brother-in-law, not the cat.) From then on, things get stranger. Kumiko disappears and seems to have been having an affair with another man and does not want to see Toru again. Toru meets a man who had a horrific experience in the war (watching a man skinned alive by Mongolians and then being thrown down a well.) Toru himself decides that he needs to go down the dry well in the unoccupied house next door and does so, spending time both meditating but also dreaming a dream which requires him to walk through a wall though he is unable to do so, till the end of the book. He gets a strange mark on his cheek and meets a woman (who won’t give him her name but he calls her Nutmeg) and they, together, help very rich women, having bought and knocked down the unoccupied house and built a new one. Indeed, these brief summaries don’t even begin to do justice to the richness, detail and imagination of Murakami in telling both Okada’s tale but also the tales of those associated with him but can only show the sheer complexity of this novel.

But everything seems to lead to Noburo Wataya. Okada hates him but Wataya is gradually becoming famous, first as a TV guru and then as a successful politician and cannot be ignored. Okada still wants Kumiko back and wants to talk to her and it is clear that Wataya is the impediment. Of course, in the end it all goes pear-shaped but Okada somehow comes out alive and in reasonably good shape, though scarred. But we have been left with a brilliant novel which works on all sorts of levels – as a straight story, as an accounting for Japanese and other atrocities in the war, as a mystery, as a story that explores the other side, as a story that looks how dreams and real life interact, even as a love story. Indeed, if you only read one Japanese novel, this should be it.

Publishing history

First published by Shinchosa, Tokyo in 1994 in Japanese
First English translation in 1987 by Knopf